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PARENTING : Just the Way You Are : Some kids are bigger, smaller, heavier or thinner than others. They should be encouraged to put less weight on looks.

August 26, 1994|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times.

Growing up is hard to do.

What with raging hormones, erupting acne, budding breasts and cracking voices, it's no wonder preteens could just die from embarrassment about, well, everything. The pubescent years are especially tough for kids who feel they look different from their peers--the husky girl who towers over her classmates, for example, or the diminutive boy who gets bypassed when basketball teams are chosen.

But adolescents aren't the only ones to suffer angst about their appearance. At the tender age of 5 or 6, youngsters have already learned to be self-conscious, according to Sondra Goldstein, a Van Nuys clinical psychologist who specializes in children's issues.

"By the time they enter first grade, children are aware of differences in faces, height and body types," Goldstein said. "They are sorted by size for school photographs. Little boys who watch sports on television are bombarded with statistics on the height and weight of athletes. Children who are overweight get pressured by their parents to not eat. I see little girls as young as 6 who are bothered by their weight, and I see little boys who are aware of their height differences."

While such youthful concerns often disappear with time, it is important to take them seriously, according to Dr. Mary Moebius, a UCLA assistant clinical professor who practices child psychiatry in Tarzana.

"If kids are teased and scapegoated too much," she said, "they can become depressed, or they may adapt a wallflower or bully stance. They may act out by being mean and nasty to other kids because they feel bad about themselves. In extreme cases, it can lead to long-term--even lifelong--problems, such as withdrawal, social phobias or difficulty establishing relationships."

The first--and most devastating--remarks children hear about their bodies often come not from the schoolyard, but from the household, according to Moebius. "The father or brother may be giving an overweight daughter a hard time, or the mother may be putting her on a diet," she said.

"But parents don't have to be objective about their kid's appearance. If a daughter says, 'My breasts are too big,' or 'My thighs are too fat,' the mom should not agree with her and say, 'Yes they are; let's put you on a diet.' "

Instead, she suggests that parents shift the conversation to the children's positive attributes. "Talk about how strong they are or how gorgeous their eyes are," she said. "Help kids focus on areas they excel in. When children express that they are feeling bad, they are really asking for comfort and verbal cuddling."

This approach may be difficult for parents with specific concerns about their child's appearance. Merri Casper, an Agoura parent, admits that she is more worried about her chubby 12-year-old daughter's weight than the girl is. "It doesn't seem to bother her; but it bothers me," said Casper.

Her daughter, Lauren, is popular, athletic and utterly unself-conscious in a bathing suit. But Casper, who was overweight as a child, worries that the youngster will feel stigmatized as she matures.

"I remember how my family called me 'pleasingly plump,' " she said, "and I hated it. We live in such a skinny-conscious world. I try not to nag, but I am afraid Lauren will not grow out of her weight problem. I want the best for her and I am concerned in a loving way."

In cases of childhood obesity, anorexia, or other conditions that can be remedied with medical help and counseling, experts suggest that parents seek advice from a physician or psychologist, rather than try to fix the problem on their own.

By allowing a professional to suggest treatment options or dietary modifications, parents can support their child without taking on the role of food cop or critic.

Of course, youngsters at the extreme ends of the weight spectrum aren't the only ones who feel badly about their bodies. Kids who hit puberty several years before or after their peers--the 9-year-old girl who spills out of a B cup and the teen-age boy who still speaks in a falsetto--are also likely to feel awful. Those who believe their noses are too long or a birthmark too conspicuous may be equally anguished.

Older girls may be mortified over facial hair or flat chests, while their male classmates are distressed about their own smooth faces and noticeable breasts. (It's fairly common for boys to develop breast tissue during puberty. While harmless and normal, the temporary condition, called gynecomastia, makes for misery in the locker room.)

"The pressure to look like everyone else is overwhelming," said Tarzana pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Norman Lavin, a clinical professor of pediatrics and endocrinology at UCLA.

"One mother came to see me because her daughter has a weight problem. She had the same kind of tears as if the girl had cancer. And the other day I saw a boy who was just this side of suicidal because his genitalia is smaller than his friends'."

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